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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts three and four)

Our son says that he really enjoyed this story, which is a relief because it did leave him a little more confused than usual. In part three, the villains Federico and Hieronymous betray each other, and he didn’t get that at all. It’s not like he’s never seen bad guys turn on each other before, but we had to pause the story to help him through it.

We also had to pause it to underline exactly how serious this threat is: the Mandragora Helix’s plan is to conquer Earth during the Age of Enlightenment to keep the people superstitious and stupid. There’s a running gag that Leonardo da Vinci is around somewhere in the palace, but never in the same place as the Doctor. I have to say that the BBC’s resources never really convinced me that this was a palace at all, much less a great big shindig thrown for the coronation of the new ruler of a city-state, but the costumes certainly looked nice.

“The Masque of Mandragora” was the final Who serial written by Louis Marks, but he had a lot more work for the BBC ahead of him. For the next thirty years, he produced several prestigious series and serials for the BBC, several of which were shown in America on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. He oversaw two George Eliot adaptations, Silas Marner and Middlemarch. That one was probably one of the biggest hits for Masterpiece in the 1990s, though it seems to be forgotten today. Marks died in 2010.

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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts one and two)

We start season fourteen of Doctor Who with a serial written by Louis Marks. “The Masque of Mandragora” has never really thrilled me for some reason. It looks just wonderful. The location filming around Portmeiron, Wales, is great, and the costumes and the sets are terrific. The story takes place in 15th Century Italy, and the costume designer just had a ball making everything look good.

It’s got the debut of the dark wood-paneled TARDIS console room, which everybody loves. It’s full of good actors as well, including Tim Piggot-Smith and Gareth Armstrong as the Doctor’s two allies, and Norman Jones as one of the villains. Unfortunately, Jon Laurimore is stuck playing the tyrannical Count Federico, who’s one of those humorless baddies who does deeply stupid things simply because the script needs a villain to add some threats and delay the real plot. I think the writer had a similar problem with the character played by Prentis Hancock in his story “Planet of Evil” the year before.

But I guess my main problem is that the topline villain is a nebulous, formless, energy-thing called the Mandragora Helix. In the 1990s, when fanfic went pro and fans started writing Who novels for Virgin and, later, the BBC, everything synced with Lovecraft and Cthulu being trendy again, and so you had books where the Animus and the Nestene Consciousness and the Mandragora Helix and the like were all new names for what people who like that sort of thing call “Old Gods” like Nyarlathotep. The Virgin series was full of cranks like those. And virtual reality prisons. And cyberpunk. It was the 1990s. I get bored with baddies like those. I like villains with faces. The Mandragora Helix is just a boring enemy.

Speaking of faces, that brings us to our son’s principal observation, which is that Norman Jones’s bunch of villains wear some completely terrific masks. I never would have thought that “The Masque of Mandragora” was all that scary, certainly not compared to the wall-to-wall frights of the previous season, but the masks that the Cult of Demnos wear proved me wrong.

I’m not quite sure I believe his reasoning, though. He told us “Those masks made me think of the Drashigs from ‘Carnival of Monsters’,” he said, “because of the open mouths and the teeth.” Since the Drashigs remain the undisputed champions of the Scariest Thing He’s Ever Seen competition, anything that reminds him of them is cause for alarm. I don’t see the resemblance myself, but, eh, kids.

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Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (parts three and four)

“Planet of Evil” is definitely in that large segment of Doctor Who that starts strong and peters out. One problem is that the serial’s star is the jungle planet, and it’s largely absent from the second half, with the action set on a very boring and beige spaceship. The other problem, and I do hate picking on an actor, is the character that the unfortunate Prentis Hancock is forced to play. There are military idiots, and then there’s Commander Salamar, who doesn’t even have the decency to be written as losing his grip or even remotely sympathetic. If we felt sorry for a man in over his head, that would be one thing, but Salamar is just an incompetent jerk. Nobody could play the part well. Hancock didn’t have a prayer of making this character work.

Worse, a huge hunk of Salamar’s boneheaded military tough guy act is just there to get himself killed and pad episode four out, because this story just plain runs out of plot. Interestingly, we asked our son in between episodes what he thought, and he actually saw where this was going. There are two anti-matter beings, the big weird one on the jungle planet, and the werewolf creature that Frederick Jaeger’s character is becoming. Our son believed that Jaeger was the more frightening threat, because he was going to turn into a weird video-effects beast: “He’s going to change and be like that creature on the planet!” Thanks to Commander Salamar’s stupidity, he does, giving the story about fourteen more minutes of action.

Our son definitely had fun being frightened by this one. He told us that it was really, really, really scary. “Three scarys?” asked his mother. “No, four,” he replied. “Three isn’t enough!”

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Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (parts one and two)

As we’ve watched the last three stories, I’ve been writing about my own discovery of Doctor Who in 1984, and figuring this thing out without any help. No books, no Wikipedia, no internet, nobody else who knew what it was. “Planet of Evil” featured one of the most amazing-looking monsters that my twelve year-old eyes had ever seen. Months later, the beast broke my heart.

I mentioned that my pal Blake had been stymied from watching Doctor Who by his mother, because it was on too late on Saturday night and they went to church Sunday morning. When she did allow him to watch one, in late April 1984, she immediately changed her mind and sent him to bed when the title of the story came onscreen: “The Robots of Death.” Discouraged, Blake kept living vicariously through me and all of my reports, until he finally found a magazine all about the show.

The previous November, Britain’s Radio Times magazine had published a 20th anniversary special issue. Starlog, a then-popular magazine about sci-fi movies and media, had picked up the special for American distribution, and Blake found a copy in a convenience store that summer. Happily for him, he could show the magazine to his mother, who was persuaded by the photos of odd and/or ridiculous aliens and bug-eyed monsters that this program wasn’t some late-night introduction to Satanism, and allowed him to finally start watching the show.

But on the other hand, it allowed Blake to completely disarm two claims that I made about the show. I’ll come back to the second one when we get about halfway through season fourteen. The first one, though, was my insistence that the anti-matter monster in “Planet of Evil” was the coolest thing anybody had ever seen. The magazine printed a production photo of the creature, for some insane reason, before it got its video treatment:

Blake was perfectly happy to believe me that all of these monsters and beasts and baddies were really cool, especially the Axons and the Cybermen, but he teased me about that bedsheet monster forever. It was a long summer.

(Perhaps worse, he got the magazine a few days before WGTV showed “The Androids of Tara,” which features a very brief appearance by one of the all-time stupid Who monsters, the Taran Wood Beast. He really enjoyed the “episode” [WGTV showed the series as compilation movies], but he kept ragging me about the Wood Beast for weeks as though it was my fault it looked so fake.)

But the other thing that I’m reminded of when watching this story is that it’s the first one that I had seen in the eighties to show the interior of the TARDIS, and reveal that the blue box is bigger on the inside. I honestly don’t recall being surprised by this, oddly.

Anyway, our son spent most of the last hour with his head buried. “Planet of Evil” has a reputation as one of the all-time great scary Who stories. It’s written by Louis Marks and directed by David Maloney. The guest stars include Prentis Hancock and Frederick Jaeger, and Michael Wisher is back again in a small role. The real star, of course, is the jungle planet of Zeta Minor, one of the most successful alien planets ever created in a studio for the BBC. I like this story, but I’ve never loved it. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I just don’t enjoy watching Prentis Hancock at the best of times, and this script has him in the unbelievably thankless role of a military idiot.

We’ll see what he thinks of the ending of this story in a couple of days. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more military idiocy to come, and a lot less weird alien jungles.

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Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks (part four)

In 2011, “Day of the Daleks” was released on DVD with a really interesting bonus feature: a complete special edition of the story with new special effects, several additional Daleks, some new footage for the climactic battle scene, and proper Dalek voices provided by Nick Briggs instead of those guys that did the original work forty years previously and sounded wrong. Unfortunately, the well-meaning team behind this otherwise entertaining upgrade also decided to cut the hilarious bit in episode one where an Ogron actor forgets to talk like an Ogron and just mumbles “No complications” in his regular voice. For shame! I love that part!

We switched over to watch the special edition for part four. It might be fairly accused of having one or ten too many bells and whistles, but it does improve what was originally a pretty tame battle scene. The director, Paul Bernard, did his best, but he just didn’t have the resources to make this important sequence shine. Worse, the human part of the conflict is ridiculous. Sir Reginald absolutely refuses to evacuate. Nobody thinks to say “There is a bomb in this building and terrorists are attacking.” You’d think that would get people back in their cars. But with lasers all over the screen and smoke in the air and bullets ricocheting off Dalek armor and lines of bullets vipping along the ground and UNIT soldiers getting either exterminated or vaporized, there’s so darn much to look at.

Our son loved it. This is the second story in a row to end with a big explosion. “Now you know the meaning of the word Dalek-explosion!” he shouted. This was after a little hiding behind the sofa and worry. He’s at the perfect age where the Daleks are both exciting and scary. He did clarify that they are meaner than both the Ice Warriors and the Master. Funny that he should think of those villains…

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Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks (part three)

The third part of “Day of the Daleks” gets a little stick because of this silly bit of runaround where the Doctor and Jo escape only to get recaptured. It’s there because the plot needs a little action, which happens a lot in this kind of program, but it’s incredibly egregious here because the runaround is on the back of an ATV three-wheeler. These were only a couple of years old at the time and still unfamiliar enough to possibly look “futuristic” to the TV audience of 1972. I think that if anybody from our day and age were to find themselves running from eight lumbering Ogrons, they wouldn’t pause to jump on an ATV, they’d just keep running.

But never mind the runaround, Jon Pertwee is on fire in this episode. He’s full of righteous fury about the criminal government of the Dalek-occupied Earth, while Aubrey Woods tries to deflect with a load of nonsense about how the enslaved planet really just puts their hardened criminals to work in labor camps. It’s a really great scene, though I think it’s an underrated one.

There’s a very effective cliffhanger too, surprisingly. I never thought much of it myself – the Daleks put the recaptured Doctor under a mind analysis machine that shows, weirdly, promotional photos of the previous two Doctors against the background of the show’s title sequence – but once again our son was riveted and frightened and hid his face. The Daleks are, “of course,” the show’s meanest enemy. How will he possibly get out of this?!

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Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks (parts one and two)

Back to January 1972 and the ninth season of Doctor Who opened with the return of the Daleks to the series for the first time since the summer of ’67. They’d been retired while their creator, Terry Nation, unsuccessfully tried to sell the American networks on a series in which a Space Security Agent foils a new evil plot by the villains every week. I sometimes wonder about that show, and kind of think that it would have been a fondly-remembered series, but not a very successful one. Still, when they do invent transportation between parallel universes, that’s on my list to check out. I wonder who would have been in the cast*.

Anyway, so the Daleks conquered Earth some time in our future, and in the 22nd Century, some fanatics have got their hands on some time travel equipment and have traveled back to “the 20th Century time zone” (just call it September 13, 1973, it makes sense) to kill a prominent politician for an as-yet-undisclosed reason. The Daleks mainly stay in a room in their future city where they yell at a controller character played by Aubrey Woods. But at the end of part two, the Doctor chases after the guerrillas and just about runs smack into a Dalek in a dark tunnel, which frightened the bejezus out of our son. Any pleasure that might come from seeing the Daleks back – he wanted to talk and talk and talk between episodes about how many there were in 1966’s “The Power of the Daleks” – came crashing into the scary reality that creepy dark tunnels are not where you want to find a Dalek.

The Daleks were apparently a late-in-the-day addition to this story by Louis Marks, who had last written for the show in 1964. He had the story about fanatics from the future trying to change history, and the ape-like Ogrons who do all the gunfighting, but the Daleks came on board to boost the marketing push. It’s the first Who serial directed by Paul Bernard. He did three of the ten serials in seasons nine and ten.

Part one of this story features a scene that I absolutely adore. The Doctor and Jo are staying in this big country house waiting for another visit from the time travelers, and the Doctor has helped himself to the cheeses and wines. Jo takes some to feed a hungry Sergeant Benton, only to have Captain Yates order him to get back to work so he can take a snack for himself. “RHIP. Rank has its privileges,” he tells her.

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